Home Health What are the main causes of shortness of breath?

What are the main causes of shortness of breath?


Shortness of breath or shortness of breath, in medical terms – dyspnea, is a common symptom that can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions. The reasons can be very different, so it is good to keep in mind the specifics of the symptoms, when exactly, under what circumstances they occur, how long they last and what the general condition is.

Diseases of the respiratory system as a cause of shortness of breath

Asthma: A chronic respiratory condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, resulting in difficulty breathing.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, leading to progressive lung damage and airflow limitation.


Cardiovascular problems can also provoke a feeling of shortness of breath. In heart failure, the heart cannot pump blood efficiently. The fluid can then build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath.

In coronary artery disease, reduced blood flow to the heart can also lead to chest pain and shortness of breath.

Infectious diseases worsen breathing

Pneumonia is a lung infection where there is inflammation and fluid buildup in the air sacs. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Some people with weakened immune systems are prone to this type of complication.

Bronchitis is a milder disease, but inflammation of the bronchi can also cause coughing and shortness of breath. Another possible cause of shortness of breath is untreated allergies. They can cause narrowing of the airways and shortness of breath, for example in allergic asthma. Dusty environments, such as in large cities or in certain industries, can also make symptoms worse.

Mental tension and stress lead to shortness of breath

Anxiety and stress are a common companion in life, some people are more prone to panic attacks. Severe anxiety can lead to rapid breathing and feeling short of breath. The condition can also develop as a fear neurosis or panic attacks.

Some medications, such as beta-blockers, can cause difficulty breathing as a side effect.

Here are a few medical conditions that can cause shortness of breath.

  • Anemia - reduced capacity of the blood to carry oxygen.
  • Neuromuscular disorders – conditions affecting the nerves and muscles involved in breathing.

If the symptoms repeat often or are very severe, you should consult a medical specialist. He will appoint additional studies and help clarify the root cause.

The main tests that can be used to determine the cause of shortness of breath

Investigating the cause of shortness of breath requires a series of diagnostic tests, and finding the right medical professional is crucial.

The GP is often the first to hear about complaints. He can perform a thorough physical examination, assessing the patient's overall health, including lung and heart function.

A chest X-ray provides a visual assessment of lungs, helping to detect problems such as pneumonia, lung tumors or fluid accumulation.

Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) measure lung function, including lung capacity and the ability to inhale and exhale. They are essential in diagnosing conditions such as asthma and COPD.

To assess heart health, an electrocardiogram records the heart's electrical activity. It helps detect problems such as arrhythmias or heart disease.

Blood tests can also provide clarity. They reveal information about oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, as well as underlying medical conditions such as anemia or infection.

Computed tomography or nuclear magnetic resonance are prescribed less often because they are expensive studies. They are used when more serious conditions are suspected. They give detailed information about the chest and surrounding structures, helping to diagnose conditions such as pulmonary embolism or lung nodules.

Echocardiography is a method in which there is no radiation. Ultrasound examination helps to evaluate the function and structure of the heart.

When airway obstruction (narrowing) or abnormal lung tissue is suspected, bronchoscopy allows direct visualization and tissue sampling.

When cardiac causes of shortness of breath are suspected, a stress test may be performed. The patient is placed on a treadmill so that cardiac function can be assessed during physical activity.

If an allergy is suspected, there are specific tests that can determine if this type of reaction is indeed present.

Which specialist should we go to for an examination?

The GP can refer the patient to specialists. A pulmonologist is a lung specialist. can diagnose and treat respiratory diseases, making them preferred for lung-related problems such as asthma and COPD.

Cardiologist: For heart-related causes of shortness of breath, a cardiologist is essential in diagnosing and managing conditions such as heart failure or coronary artery disease.

Allergist: In cases of allergic reactions causing shortness of breath, an allergist can identify specific allergens and provide treatment options.

Emergency Department: In cases of severe or sudden shortness of breath, the emergency department is the immediate point of care.

Can symptoms point to the root cause of shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath can indeed present itself with specific symptoms and characteristics that can provide valuable clues to its underlying cause. As a medical blogger, it's important to highlight these features to help readers better understand the underlying conditions. Here are some notable manifestations of shortness of breath and their potential consequences:

If shortness of breath occurs suddenly and intensely, it may be related to a panic attack, an allergic reaction, or a pulmonary embolism. Chronic or gradual onset: conditions such as COPD, asthma or heart failure often present with a gradual increase in breathlessness over time.

Associated symptoms suggest disease

Wheezing: Wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing, is common in asthma and some allergic reactions.

Cough: A persistent cough accompanied by shortness of breath may indicate lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis or pneumonia.

Chest pain: Chest discomfort along with shortness of breath can indicate heart problems such as angina or a heart attack.

Swelling of the legs: Swollen feet and ankles may be a sign of heart failure.

Fever: If a fever is present, shortness of breath may be associated with an infection such as pneumonia.

Exercise-induced: Shortness of breath during physical activity is typical of conditions such as bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced loss of conditioning.

Environmental allergens: If shortness of breath worsens when exposed to specific allergens, an allergy may be the cause.

Positional symptoms:

Orthopnea: Shortness of breath that improves when sitting upright and worsens when lying down is often associated with heart failure.

Color changes:

Cyanosis: A bluish discoloration of the lips, fingertips, or skin indicates low blood oxygen levels, often seen in severe respiratory or heart disease.

Sound changes:

Stridor: A high-pitched, croaking sound during inhalation may suggest upper airway obstruction, such as in croup.

Age and risk factors - shortness of breath in a young person can point to different causes than in a person of retirement age.

Author Ina Dimitrova

Image by Drazen Zigic on Freepik


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